Most teachers would give anything for a few quiet minutes in the classroom, but one teacher on the WeAreTeachers HELPLINE Facebook group is facing a different problem this year. “I have a little girl who spoke maybe four words all last year while in kindergarten and now that she’s in first grade is not yet talking,” this teacher shared. “She talks to her friends. She talks to her family. Once she almost talked to me, half accidentally. Anyone had experience with this?” Fortunately, some others did have experience with this kind of thing, and suggested that it sounded like a classic case of selective mutism.
What is selective mutism?
First, here’s what it’s not. Selective mutism is not willful disobedience—the child is not choosing this behavior. It’s not just a bit of shyness that will wear off when the student grows more comfortable in a week or two. It’s not a child who just likes peace and quiet, or even one who is introverted. (See more myths about selective mutism here.)
So what is it? The Mayo Clinic’s website defines selective mutism (SM) as an anxiety disorder characterized by “a consistent failure by children to speak in certain situations, such as school, even when they can speak in other situations, such as at home with close family members.” In general, this behavior needs to be seen consistently for at least one month before a diagnosis can be made. (This month does not include the first month of school, which is a stressful time for every child.) Selective mutism is believed to occur in about 1% of children, is more common in girls than boys, and is often diagnosed when children begin school.
But they’ll talk if they really need to, right?
Probably not. Think of selective mutism more like a switch that is flipped in certain situations. At home, or with friends, this child is usually talkative and often outgoing (this is an important distinction between selective mutism and autism). But when put into an unfamiliar social situation, with new faces and new expectations, the switch flips and speech simply stops. The child cannot control this behavior; in fact, they often want desperately to speak but feel unable to. For instance, it’s not unusual for a young child with SM to wet their pants rather than ask to use the bathroom.
Obviously, this has enormous impacts on a child’s performance in school. Teachers who suspect selective mutism should immediately talk to the student’s parents and previous teachers, as well as schedule time with a school counselor. Students diagnosed with SM may qualify for an IEP/504 plan, and need certain accommodations to help them succeed.
– Jill Staake, WeAreTeachers
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